Saturday, 21 December 2013



   The image is iconic. Summer solstice at Stonehenge. Crowds of up to 30,000 crammed within the megalithic circle on Salisbury plain, a sea of faces turned to the north-east where the Heelstone marks the rising sun. As light blooms and the horizon grows bright, horns blow and shouts of the throng echo through the Stones and rise to the sky.
   But…it seems that Midwinter solstice may have been the more important day for the prehistoric people of Stonehenge. Finds by the Riverside Project show that at nearby Durrington Walls the time of the winter Solstice was one of great communal feasting, with young pigs being slaughtered in a ritualised hunt with bows and arrows. The arrows were of a particularly lethal type, made to cause maximum blood loss rather than instant death and there would have lots of squealing and shrieking. (Interestingly a man’s leg bone, also pierced by a similar arrowhead, was founds amidst the bones of the pigs!) There was so much food available to the community of Durrington (which may have seasonally held several thousand inhabitants) that the people were tearing off chunks of the best meat and then throwing away the rest—so that even the Neolithic dogs, resembling modern terriers, had their share.
   Durrington Walls itself was aligned on the rising sun at the Winter Solstice, the light of dawn shining over the nearby hills and lighting the metalled trackway that led down to the River Avon, which may have been considered a sacred waterway like the Ganges, a deep place inhabited by great chthonic spirits, a sacred space to deposit cremations and other offerings.
     However, whereas Durrington Walls and its long vanished circular timber structures, possibly resembling Stonehenge in wood, were aligned on the rising Sun…Stonehenge itself is centred on the setting sun, the winter sun as it dies on the shortest day of the year.

   A journey to Stonehenge at Solstice in 2300 BC might have gone like this…after greeting sunrise at Durrington Walls, with offerings of meat and milk placed in pots beside the entrances, the celebrant or initiate might have travelled down the Avon by boat or foot. Maybe he/she had drunk ‘mead’, the magic drink, the Intoxicator, which gave its name to that famous mythic Irish Queen, Meadbh, or perhaps he/she had taken hallucinogenics—mushrooms or ergot. On either side white riverbanks would tower, strange and disorientating, while the sinuous winding and twisting of the river would add to the otherworldly sensation. Reaching the place where the even older henge monument known as West Amesbury henge once stood (its banks would probably have been visible), the participant would have then travelled up the between the parallel banks of the Avenue, a ceremonial pathway that leads across by King Barrow ridge and down into the valley. For a while Stonehenge itself vanishes from view, hidden by the swell of the land…but as the traveller follows the Avenue onwards, it suddenly appears again, as its builders truly intended it to be seen, rising in layers towards the south-west, with the Great Trilithon, just over twenty four feet tall with its lintel in place, standing pre-eminent over all.
   This is the place where the Sun would have ‘died’ at Midwinter, between the  Great Trilithon’s narrow arch and over the micaceous 16 foot block of the Altar Stone, now lying beneath one massive fallen stone of the Trilithon. Even today, with one side collapsed and the lintel tumbled on the ground, it is impressive to witness the winter sunset from near the Heelstone, watching the sky bleed as the sun sinks through the monument’s remaining stones and descends behind a later round barrow which had a ‘totem pole’ on its top (obviously the grave of someone important connected to Stonehenge in its later phases—a well built male, laid out on a wooden plank.)

   What could the symbolism be? It will always been debated, as no written records exist, but as in most cultures, the sun was seen as a life-giver. The winter solstice would have greater significance than summer because the winter was a time when life was more fragile, when children and the old might sicken and be carried off to the Land of the Dead. Greater feasts and rituals would have to take place to placate the sun, which was probably not seen so much as a ‘god’ with a human face, but a powerful non-anthropomorphic entity. And then there were also the ever-present ancestral spirits (who, far from being friendly Grandma’s ghost, were often seen as malevolent and in need of constant placation!)

   The two faces of Solstice, the rising sun and the setting sun, figure prominently at the cluster of important monuments within the Stonehenge landscape. This is mirrored at the Boyne complex in Ireland. At the Irish tomb of Newgrange, about 600 years older than Stonehenge, the rising sun on the Winter Solstice shines down a 60ft passage to light up the chamber at the end; nearby, at the passage-grave of Dowth (the Hill of Darkness), the alignment is on the winter solstice sunset, as it is at Stonehenge. Interestingly Newgrange and its satellite temple-tombs are also near a ‘sacred river,’ the Boyne, whose mythological deity was Boann, the White Cow.
   One wonders if the Great Trilithon, built several hundred years later than Newgrange’s famous Lightbox, was meant in some way to represent the mouth of an earlier chamber tomb (this is thought to be the case in monuments such as the Cove at Avebury), having a similar function but with some of the emphasis passing from the more funereal to multi-functional, from Ancestors to deities, from events hidden from living eyes within encasing stone to something that that could be witnessed by people standing outside the monument on the Avenue.

    Recently there have been some local attempts to recreate a procession down the Stonehenge Avenue on the night before Solstice as the sun sets. Unfortunately problems over land access has caused the route to be changed this year, but the solstice walk will now take in a section of the Avon where the ancient people would have passed on their processional route and also the ‘sacred pool’ recently discovered at Vespasian’s camp (on private land) where deposits of a Roman curse and bronze age dagger, like Excalibur thrown into the waves, followed a massive ancient deposition of flint by Mesolithic hunters who feasted there, eating wild boar and giant Aurochs…the pre-Stonehenge people, who may have made this part of Wiltshire a ‘sacred Ancestral Space.’

~ J.P. Reedman, Solstice 2013

Last years Solstice Lantern Parade from Stonehenge to Amesbury
This years Solstice Fairy, Cara Druce

Janet Reedman is author of two historical novels, STONE LORD and MOON LORD, which take place at the time of Stonehenge but utilize the Arthurian legends as a basis. She is also author of various short stories and poetry relating to myth and prehistory, available as e-books. 

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  1. A most interesting and informative post, Janet. Stonehenge is on our To Visit List in 2014!

  2. There's an all new visitor's centre there now, with a great display of artefacts and the recon structed head of a neolithic man who some folk think looks like Charlton Heston!

  3. Gosh, I'd never realised the role of the Avon before - the ancient equivalent of the Ganges! I live a couple of hours from Stonehenge and often take overseas visitors there, and they never fail to be moved by it, whatever the weather or the season (the last couple of times, no trace of sun and in pouring rain - still impressive though at any time of year!) Looking forward to seeing the new visitors' centre.

    1. It seems the river was really the key to the link between the sites. In old books Stonehenge, Woodhenge etc were always treated seperately, but it seems they were all part of a huge complex connected by the Avon. I think it's telling that the river's name simply means 'River' as if it had some special importance as THE river, rather being named for its attributes like many other waterways like the Clyde (cleanser) and the the Dove (dark).

  4. A fascinating reimagining of Winter Solstice at Stonehenge, thank you.

  5. This is a thrilling account of the solstice, enhanced by your photos. Thank you.

  6. Informative as ever, Janet. You have some of the best posts! Happy Solstice.

  7. Nice post - interesting with the river/monument link.

  8. Love these photos Janet - and Stonelord is a great book!

  9. I'm always eager to learn about Stonehenge. I think the best way to learn more would be to follow that ancient route and experience it for myself.